Starting Out At A Two-Year College : A Viable Option

The decision on where to attend college is often the most important choice a classical singer can make. The options can seem endless: conservatory or liberal arts degree? Private school or public university? Many young students schedule numerous auditions, hoping to gain admission to the most prestigious music schools in the country.

Could some singers be better off starting out at a two-year community college? Career-focused students often overlook community colleges, but sometimes that small, local college can have exactly the kind of training singers need to help them reach their goals.

Students choose to attend two-year colleges for many reasons. Many people cite financial issues first. Tuition at a community college is usually a fraction of what you would pay at a state university, let alone at a private college or conservatory. For singers who are looking toward graduate school, the savings from starting out at a two-year college can be substantial: it can mean greatly reduced students loans over the long haul.

What’s more, many students can live at home while attending school, which saves even more money—and because many two-year colleges offer night, online and distance learning, non-traditional students can continue to work while pursuing a degree.

Some students are unsure of their direction when they graduate from high school. Two-year colleges give these singers a chance to explore and try different things without making a big financial investment. Students can experiment with vocal and music study (and other areas) in a relatively low-stress environment. Those who need to improve their grades can learn important study skills. Many students simply need more time to mature and grow as they transition from high school to a university.

Others singers choose to study at a community college because they want to improve their voice and performance skills before jumping into the competitive environment of a large university.

“I wanted to make sure that I was really prepared for auditioning at four-year colleges,” said a young mezzo. “I knew that my voice still needed some help, training-wise, when I was a senior in high school, so the community college seemed like the best alternative.” Another young bass-baritone said, “I felt being thrown into a university setting without prior singing experience would be a setback. I wanted to start [at a university, after junior college] with a higher level of learning and a more solid technical foundation.”

Voice teachers at two-year colleges offer another perspective on the issue. They often site small student-teacher ratios and personalized instruction as real benefits. Many community college music programs are quite intimate, with small classes. Students and teachers get to know each other well. This provides a nurturing environment for both beginning and experienced singers alike. Several teachers CS interviewed discussed the personal approach they can offer to students, fine tuning their teaching to beginners and other singers with special needs as well as challenging the high school “stars.”

Linda Noble Brown, a voice teacher at College of Marin in California, described this process well.

“One student came to me with a severely damaged vocal instrument from singing jazz incorrectly too early in her development. But she was determined, and between her studies at the college and additional private lessons, within a couple of years she graduated from the conservatory,” said Brown. “Had she gone first to the university or conservatory, she would never have discovered her true singing talents.”

Many teachers mentioned the increased opportunities for performance at some exceptional two-year colleges. These colleges offer regular recitals, operas, musicals, opera scenes, and more for the dedicated singer. Community colleges are usually smaller, so singers face less competition, especially since these colleges have no upper classmen and graduate students. When singers transfer out of such strong programs, that extra stage time can make them much better prepared than their university peers. This can lead to more opportunities and quicker advancement. When asked about his transition to a university and whether he was adequately prepared, a young bass replied, “I am well beyond my colleagues. My time spent at my ‘CC’ gave me the foundation and understanding of the voice that students starting out at the four-year university level simply don’t have.”

Conservatory-bound students can also benefit from starting out at a two-year college. Male voices particularly are often immature at the age when singers typically apply to schools. James Sherrell, a young tenor from Washington State who was recently accepted to Mannes, wrote, “The main motivation behind going to Olympic College [in Bremerton, Wash.] was to prepare myself for conservatory auditions. During my senior year [of high school], I didn’t feel as though I was ready to make a good enough showing at the schools in order to get the kind of scholarships that I needed to attend. So I spent an extra year working on audition pieces.”

“I feel that after this year, I am so much more prepared for everything Mannes has to throw at me,” he added. “I took theory and got some invaluable ear training through the wonderful jazz choir, but more importantly, I matured a lot over that year and gained the independence and work ethic so essential to a singer’s career.”

Another tenor, Andrew Ericson, will be attending Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University in Chicago after being accepted by several other major conservatories. “The goal in attending a community college was to see where exactly my voice was going. I also wanted to get my grades up so I had a choice in schools,” Andrew explained. “I totally reinvented myself there. People are too young to decide what they want at 17 or 18. They are also not properly equipped to make the jump into a conservatory without knowing what they are capable of.”

Having extra time to mature and develop under good teachers has served these young singers well.

Unfortunately, not every community college music program produces such stellar results. Some two-year colleges have “ensemble-driven programs” said a university voice professor and choral director on the West Coast. He warns, “Students transferring from such colleges without adequate private voice instruction do not have the vocal technique and repertoire requirements required to transfer at a junior level in voice.” Other university voice professors admit that some transfer students are a little bit “behind” and that many times credits in theory or history may not transfer directly. If so, students can catch up through summer school, online classes, or extra time in school. Standards for transfer students are high, but most professors agree that singers who transfer successfully and stay with a university program usually have a strong work ethic and a real appreciation of their educational opportunities.

Can students encounter other negatives to all the good two-year colleges can offer singers? Students and teachers alike mention the stigma.

“Many people think that ‘CCs’ are lesser in quality and assume the same for the instructors and even the students,” said a voice professor from Texas. “But that is just not true. The faculty are often excellent, and the students, too.”

Unfortunately, transferring credits can be a real problem for many transfer students. In addition, some students may suffer from the big-fish-in-a-small-pond syndrome. Exceptional singers may feel overconfident when they face true competition at a larger university. On a social level, some students may find it hard to break into the tight-knit music departments of some schools, but once again, those who are determined usually find success.

Community college may not be the right choice for every singer, but those who choose this option can rest assured that they are gaining a solid foundation that can support them for the remainder of their careers. If you are planning on pursuing this path, here is some advice from both teachers and students to help you on your journey:

* Do your research early. Visit the schools you wish to attend and meet the professors and voice teachers. Talk to the students, too. Find out how your chosen school or university handles transfer students. Do they accept credit outright or will you have to take a diagnostic test? Ask about the transfer rate. Don’t be shy—you don’t want any surprises later.

* Find a good voice teacher. This should almost go without saying. A voice teacher can make or break you at any college program, but with transfer students it is even more important. You need to find a teacher who can help build your vocal technique, work out any problems you may have, and assist you with audition repertoire.

* If you think you might want to be music major, begin the music sequence right away. Music theory is a freshman-level course that lasts all year. If you miss the first quarter or semester, you will have to wait a year to start the sequence. And study hard. Doing well in music theory is one of the keys to success when you transfer to a university.

* Take as many general education classes as possible. That way, you can focus exclusively on your major once you transfer to the college of your choice.

* Come prepared to work hard. It is tough getting everything together to transfer to a university or conservatory in music. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The teachers are there to support you.

* Don’t try to go home between classes. The student services center is your friend. Stay on campus and study, practice, or use the computer lab. Learn to make good use of your time.

* Listen to your heart and follow your dreams!

Valerie White Williams

Valerie White Williams is a Seattle-based singer, voice teacher, lecturer, and writer. A featured presenter at the 2005 Classical Singer Convention in New York City, Williams taught classes on “Promoting Your Teaching Studio” and has since then lectured on vocal health and internet marketing for musicians. Visit Williams online at to learn more about her singing career and for information about her voice studio.